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Tillerson's Task Ahead For Turkey Visit


President Donald Trump has said he wants to wipe ISIS off the face of the Earth. To try and do that, he is preparing to send more U.S. forces to Syria. But to succeed in that larger goal, Trump needs the help of a crucial ally - Turkey. And his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, is in the Turkish capital Ankara today. He spoke a short while ago alongside Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.


REX TILLERSON: In the United States, the people of Turkey have a trusted ally and a partner who is committed to its safety and security and advancing the economic opportunity. We look forward to approaching these challenges together, and the Trump administration will continue to build ties with this longstanding ally and our friend.

GREENE: Secretary of state Rex Tillerson there - but we should say these are tense moments in this relationship. And let's explore why with a man who knows the relationship well. It's James Jeffrey. He's a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey. He joined us earlier on Skype.

JAMES JEFFREY: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

GREENE: Well, thanks for coming on. So we should remind people Turkey is a NATO ally. The U.S. operates bases there. But the U.S. and Turks have not always seen eye to eye on the best way to fight ISIS. So frame the challenge for Secretary Tillerson for me if you can.

JEFFREY: Very quickly, it starts with the Trump administration. They see two threats in the region. One is ISIS, which is frankly - as a state, as an entity, as a caliphate - on its last legs. The second biggest threat is Iran empowered by Russia, particularly in Syria but frankly from Afghanistan to Yemen up to Lebanon. And that is a view shared by almost all of the states in the region.

The problem is the more urgent fight, defeating ISIS, has the United States at odds with Turkey, which is important for both the short-term struggle against ISIS and the long-term one. The reason is the U.S., to defeat ISIS in Syria, needs the help of local forces who are mainly Syrian Kurds called the YPG, which is a military arm of a movement that is very closely associated with the PKK Turkish movement that is in an insurgency against Turkey. So Turkey feels that we are empowering this movement and that after ISIS is defeated, this movement will occupy a lot of land and possibly become allied with Iran and Syria - and the Syrian regime. So that is the problem

GREENE: This disagreement has gone on for so long, the United States trusting the Kurds much more than the Turks do because the Turks view some Kurdish forces as terrorists. I mean, is - what is Rex Tillerson have to do? Is there any way to to find a solution here?

JEFFREY: Well, there's several things. First of all, the intensity of president of Turkey, Erdogan's, concerns about the YPG are driven, to some degree, by a constitutional referendum coming up on the 16 of April. He wants to win that. He wants to have far more powers that this constitutional referendum, if it passes, would give him.

GREENE: This would be Turkish voters giving President Erdogan much more power, even though some critics already say he's an autocrat as of now.

JEFFREY: He doesn't have as much power as he wants, to be blunt. And he sees this referendum as a way to do that. He needs the votes of very anti-Kurdish, essentially extreme nationalist Turks. And, thus, he cannot compromise at all. He's worked with the Syrian Kurds before. They have a totally peaceful, 400-kilometer border right now. But he does not want to look like he's being weak to them. The second problem with the U.S. is the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, the imam who was the head of an organization that most people, particularly in Turkey, believe was behind the coup attempt of July 15. So that's another (unintelligible).

GREENE: Yeah. And he's in the United States. And the Obama administration and the Trump administration - neither extradited him. So that might be getting in the way and complicating the relationship. But let me just go back to what you were talking about with the Kurds. Are you saying this could be the kind of meeting where Erdogan might sit down behind closed doors with Tillerson, say - you know what? - for political reasons, I've got to be really tough on the Kurds. But we're going to be able to work together going forward once this referendum happens?

JEFFREY: That's the hope on the American side. In return, what the U.S. will try to do is say, look, unlike the Obama administration, we hear your pleas for help that we hear from Israel, from Saudi Arabia, from the rest of the region that the Obama administration ignored. The Iranian expansion and the Russian returned to the region as an ally of Iran's. We have a plan against that. We want to work with you. That's important. Secondly, using more U.S. troops, as we now seem to be doing in Raqqa, and possibly finding some role for Turkey in the fight around Raqqa against ISIS - probably the package that he'll try to sell Erdogan. And we'll see how Erdogan reacts to it.

GREENE: OK. Speaking to former ambassador to Turkey James Jeffrey. He is also a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute speaking today as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson heads for important meetings in Turkey.

Ambassador, thanks a lot.

JEFFREY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.